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How to Evaluate Weed Quality

Whether you live in a legal state or not (and perhaps especially if not), chances are you have encountered subpar cannabis flowers before. The era of weak, brown “brick weed” is long over, but that doesn’t mean that all flower is created equally.

The good news is that you can avoid being stuck with subpar weed if you know what to look for. In our experience, there is no substitute for a smoke test in a perfectly rolled joint or blunt, but a methodical visual inspection of the buds will give you a good idea as to the type of strain and the conditions in which it was grown. Once you know what to look for, you’ll always have the best in your 420 travel kit.

Table of contents

Smell
KEY TAKEAWAYS
Color
KEY TAKEAWAYS
Bud Structure
KEY TAKEAWAYS
Trimming
KEY TAKEAWAYS
Trichomes
KEY TAKEAWAYS
Hermaphroditic Traits
KEY TAKEAWAYS
Mold and Pests
KEY TAKEAWAYS
Did You Know?

Smell

Well-grown, quality cannabis buds should have a pungent, identifiable smell — that skunky aroma that ranges from slightly sweet to earthy to diesel-like — indicating high terpene content. Alternatively, inferior buds often lack any smell or smell similarly to hay or alfalfa, a sure sign of poorly grown and/or cured cannabis.

For reference, rich scents like coffee and chocolate are typically indicative of an indica strain, while bright, acidic citrus notes are generally characteristic of a sativa. Hybrid strains will likely contain components of both profiles.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Avoid buds that smell like hay or have no discernible smell at all. If it doesn’t have that characteristic dankness, you probably don’t want it.

Pungency is directly linked to potency and terpene content.

Color

Quality cannabis buds should be generally green in color, not brown! The exact shade can range from lighter, frosty greens to darker, forest greens, with undertones that range from purple to rosy to golden.

The important question to ask is: does the bud look like it came from a healthy plant? It is not uncommon for quality buds to have hints of purple, pink, blue, etc. However, if the majority of the bud is rusty red, brown, tan, or yellow in color, it came from an unhealthy plant.

Buds that looked bleached white (not frosty with crystals) are the unfortunate victims of light burn, an unfavorable growing condition in which the plant is subjected to extremely high-intensity light. Avoid these buds, as they won’t give you a quality smoking or vaping experience.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Avoid buds that are brown, tan, yellow, red, or white in color.

Quality cannabis is primarily green in color, with a wide range of accent colors and undertones.

Bud Structure

As a general rule of thumb, indica buds should be tight and dense, while sativa buds are often more light and fluffy. However, when grown carelessly, indica buds can take on sativa-like appearance, with open, incomplete buds and visible stems. Hybrid strains often share structural traits of both indicas and sativas.

For reference, sativa buds are typically covered in more pistils (little orange/red hairs) than indica buds. The pistils should be dispersed throughout the bud, not clustered in some areas and absent from others.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Avoid buds with loose, open structures and visible stems

Indicas are generally tight and dense, while sativas are fluffier with more pistils

Trimming

Following the harvest, cannabis buds must be trimmed in order to eliminate the leaves surrounding the bud. Quality cannabis buds should be tightly hand-trimmed as opposed to machine-trimmed.

Trimming machines tend to mangle buds and disrupt the fragile trichomes they harbor. Avoid buds that have been machine trimmed or untrimmed buds with excessive leaves; typical indications of rushed cultivation practices.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Avoid buds that haven’t been trimmed well, or are visibly mangled by a trim machine

Quality cannabis is trimmed by hand to preserve trichomes and buds

Trichomes

The goal of properly grown cannabis is to produce buds densely packed with ripe trichomes, the visible crystals on the surface of the buds. This is because trichomes are where the cannabinoids and terpenes are stored.

Trichome density is relatively easy to distinguish with the naked eye; i.e. how ‘frosty’ is the bud? Quality buds will be covered in trichomes that sparkle like crystals, whereas poor quality buds will lack trichome coverage.

Trichome ripeness, on the other hand, is a bit more difficult to assess without the aid of a magnifying glass or jeweler’s loupe. The question at hand; was the plant grown to maturity, or was it harvested prematurely (or even late)?

Usually, the problem is prematurely harvested buds as opposed to those which are over-ripened (especially with sativa strains, as they have longer flowering periods). Premature harvesting is especially common in illegal states where the underground cultivators seek to complete more flower cycles in a year to maximize yield (at the expense of quality).

The color of the glandular trichome head is the easiest way to determine trichome ripeness. Ideally, the trichome heads should be milky white, possibly with a hint of amber. If the trichome heads are clear, the plant was harvested prematurely, and if all the heads are amber, the plant was harvested after peak ripeness.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Avoid buds that don’t look ‘frosty,’ as they were not grown to peak ripeness

Quality cannabis is dense with cannabinoid-rich, milky-white trichome heads

Hermaphroditic Traits

Quality buds are only produced by female cannabis plants – males produce pollen sacks, which you don’t want to smoke! Strong female genetics remain female even through the potential stresses encountered while growing.

The key here is strong female genetics; some more finicky strains will produce female plants with hermaphroditic traits. This means that, with enough stress or time, the plant has a tendency to produce either male flower sites or “bananas” (also called nanners).

These are generally not desirable characteristics and buds showing these traits should be avoided. This is a plant’s final attempt to self-pollinate and reproduce after being stressed to a point where it views death as imminent. All that stress means that the plant hasn’t had the energy to devote to becoming potent — it’s been in survival mode. Thus, the earlier in its lifecycle the plant shows hermaphroditic traits, the higher likelihood the bud is seeded.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Avoid cannabis with seeds, male flower sites, or “bananas.”

Quality cannabis is only produced by the female plant – male characteristics indicate the plant was cultivated under stress and the quality of the buds will be substantially lower.

Mold and Pests

It should go without saying that quality cannabis buds are free of mold and pests, but these issues can sometimes surface in cannabis purchased from a source outside the regulated legal market.

Mold manifests itself as white, powdery mildew (distinct from the crystalline trichomes) or a grey, fuzzy mold, depending on the particular fungal pest. Insects like mites, gnats, thrips, and aphids can leave fecal matter, eggs and even dead friends behind on your buds — ew. If any of these critters, or traces of them, are in your herb, don’t smoke it!

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Avoid cannabis with any evidence of mold and pests

Did You Know?

Aside from the obvious (not wanting to smoke bad weed), those same buds pictured above comprise the starting material used to make all other forms of cannabis. Whether you prefer vaporizing concentrates or consuming edibles, every form of cannabis consumptionstems from the flower the plant produces.

Healthy plants have the best chance of producing a robust cannabinoid profile, and while most people are looking for maximum THC content, one of the most beneficial cannabinoids is called cannabidiol, or CBD.

Though it doesn’t get you high (unlike THC, it is non-psychoactive), athletes and travelers find CBD incredibly helpful for pain relief. Others find help with anxiety and stress, and it is used to treat drug-resistant epilepsy and other inflammatory disorders.

Commonly sold in concentrated forms such as tinctures or softgels, CBD can also be found in high concentrations in organic hemp flower (Lifter strain from Canna Comforts shown below), the source material from which those concentrates are extracted.

Recently, TSA released guidelines on how to take your vape pen on a plane, the rules for flying with weed so that people can make appropriate plans for safely taking their medication on the go.

The era of weak, brown "brick weed" is long over, but that doesn't mean that all flower is created equally. Here's our guide on how to evaluate the quality of your weed.

How to Evaluate Marijuana Quality and Potency

There is a world of difference between high-quality cannabis and garbage weed that you’d be better off skipping entirely. How marijuana is grown, harvested, handled, and stored has the power to make a huge difference in its potency and overall quality.

In places where recreational weed is legal, competition between dispensaries in this hot new market tends to keep quality standards high. In states where marijuana is only legal for medicinal use – or not at all – the quality of weed available (legally and on the black market) can vary considerably. Regardless of where you get your cannabis, you can use this guide to help you know what to look for – and what to avoid – to get the best and most effective weed for your money.

How to find high-quality weed

There are many factors that determine whether cannabis falls into the top-shelf category (also known as “dank,” “fire,” or “loud”) or if it’s just low-grade “schwag,” “brick weed,” or “dirt weed.” From stickiness to scent, here’s how to spot the best marijuana:

Buy from dispensaries whenever possible

Buying only certified tested weed from reputable dispensaries gives you the best odds of getting a high-quality product. Buying from private “dealers” always carries a degree of risk – to your health as well as legally. However, even in the best dispensaries, marijuana quality can and does vary, as these shops aim to cater to customers with varying range of budgets.

Dispensaries do tend to make telling the upper crust from the low-grade stuff easy, though. The “top shelf” products will literally be on the top shelf, mid-grades on the middle shelf and the lowest shelves filled with economy weed. At a good dispensary, even the least expensive weed should still be of decent quality, but you should always go for the best weed that you reasonably can. If you’re trying out a new strain, or new dispensary, research the strain beforehand and be sure to ask the budtender what to expect (smell, taste, and “high” or other effects) so that you can be sure it all adds up when you try it.

Buying from reputable dispensaries gives you the best odds of getting a high-quality product.

Hallmarks of good weed vs. bad weed

Here’s what to look for – and look out for – when you’re sizing up your next cannabis purchase.

Color

Fresh, potent weed will usually be some shade of green, or mostly green. Shades of blue, red, orange and purple may show up in good weed, too (as long as they aren’t patches of mold!), but weed should never be brown. Brown weed is a sure sign of oxidization and the resulting breakdown of cannabinoids, terpenes, and other important chemical compounds. As cannabis ages, and particularly as it’s exposed to oxygen, THC (tetrahydrocannabinol) breaks down into a compound called cannabinol (CBN). CBN has a handful of health benefits in its own right, but unlike THC, it’s not psychoactive. If your weed has started to oxidize, you’re more likely to get sleepy than stoned. Brown weed is generally difficult to smoke, as it burns too fast and the smoke is harsher and may lead to strong bouts of coughing.

Smell

Good weed always has that pungent, unmistakable cannabis scent. Top-grade weed even boasts the nickname “loud” because its aroma is so strong and pleasant that you can’t help but notice it, even through sealed packaging! Don’t smoke any weed that smells like grass or hay, has little aroma at all, or smells like dampness or mold. Cannabis with little to no aroma has likely been exposed to too much oxygen, breaking down its aromatic (and psychoactive) compounds. If marijuana smells like grass or hay, you can expect it to be of very low quality. And, of course, moldy weed is downright dangerous to smoke. If you are unable to get your marijuana from a licensed dispensary, don’t buy without smelling it first. Occasionally, cheap dealers sub out their cannabis with completely different herbs. Before you smoke it, make sure your weed passes the sniff test!

Taste

Of course, there are a myriad of flavor note combinations possible in cannabis. But whether it’s piney, cheesy, or chocolatey, good weed will taste vibrant and fresh. If you taste chemicals or metallics, there may be pesticides or other contaminants lingering in it. Foul-tasting weed can be a sign of mold or mildew growth. If you experience chest pain or any sort of unpleasant flavor, discontinue use right away. Inhaling mold and other contaminants can cause illness and do significant damage to your lungs.

Trichomes

The presence of ample trichomes is another surefire way to tell how potent and well-cared-for your cannabis is. Trichomes are the facets of a white crystalline resin that coats the outside of quality buds. The thicker the trichome layer, the more potent the weed. Ideally, trichomes should be milky white, shiny, and look like fully formed crystals under a microscope or through a magnifying glass. On good-quality weed, you’ll probably be able to see some trichomes with the naked eye, but a magnifying glass can help you tell for sure.

Trichomes contain most of the terpenes and cannabinoids responsible for tasty and effective weed. If the bud is touched too much between harvest and consumption, some of the trichomes will rub off – decreasing the potency of the weed. If the weed is harvested too early, the trichomes will not be fully formed (you’ll be able to see this under magnification). If the trichomes are amber-tinged, the weed was probably harvested too late, and the THC is already breaking down into CBN. It’s not unheard of for shady black-market dealers to rub their buds with anything from soap to other drugs to make them appear high in trichomes – so stick to buying from reputable sources whenever possible.

Cannabis stays fresh and pleasant to smoke when it’s not allowed to dry out or to get too damp. Dried out marijuana is harsh and irritating to smoke, burns too fast, and can cause excessive coughing. Conversely, if weed gets too wet, the likelihood of it containing mildew or mold is much higher and the flavor is usually less than desirable. Well-kept weed will easily break apart, but it doesn’t crumble to the touch.

The ideal density varies by strain, with quality indicas being quite dense, sativas being fluffier, and hybrids falling in between. The trichome resin covering your weed should feel sticky to the touch. However, you’ll want to limit how much you touch it (and use gloves, tongs, scissors, or chopsticks if you can) because any resin that gets stuck to your fingers is no longer contributing to the potency of your cannabis!

Seeds

High-quality marijuana will not contain seeds, and even bottom-shelf weed should not if it comes from a reputable dispensary. Not only do seeds add weight, giving you less useable cannabis for your money, but they explode when combusted, which can not only wreck the flavor of your joint but can cause your glassware to break. Seedy weed will also be less potent since once a female cannabis plant begins to produce seeds, it will channel most of its resources to producing more seeds – and fewer toward producing psychoactive compounds.

Stems

A few stems may naturally show up in your weed, but there shouldn’t be very many. Cannabis stems really shouldn’t be smoked, and you don’t want to pay extra for stems that you’ll have to pick out. Stems and other unusable loose leaf fragments in a bag of weed are often known as “shake.” Quality weed shouldn’t contain much shake, if at all.

Orange hairs

If you see orange hairs in your cannabis, that’s a good thing! These hairs are called stigmas, and they are part of the female cannabis plant’s reproductive system. Stigmas are there to collect pollen from male cannabis plants so they can grow new seeds. However, high-quality smokable weed comes only from unpollinated female plants. If the stigmas (which start out white) are orange (or yellow or red), it’s a sign that your cannabis was picked at the perfect time. If cannabis gets past its prime without being harvested, the stigmas will start to turn brown. You’ll tend to see higher numbers of stigmas in sativas.

Weed that is too wet will often contain mold. If your weed smells or tastes funky or hurts your chest to smoke, mold is a likely culprit. Inhaling mold can make you really sick, so immediately stop using any cannabis that might be contaminated. Black, gray, green, and white are the most common mold colors, but any unusual fuzzy patch on your weed is suspect no matter what color.

Ideally, any wispy little leaves (which aren’t coated with trichomes) should be chopped off, as excess leafy content will bring down the overall potency of your weed, Hand-trimmed cannabis is better than machine-trimmed, as it takes a human touch to trim without disturbing the trichomes too much.
If cannabis looks like it was cut haphazardly by a machine or is still covered in abundant wispy fan leaves, it’s probably not very good.

Pests

Since many cannabis grow operations avoid the use of toxic pesticides – which is generally a good thing! – there is the unfortunate possibility that bugs could end up living in your weed. If there are noticeable bugs in your weed, don’t use it! Spider mites are a common infiltrator of cannabis plants. These microscopic spiders (either brown or orange-red in color) suck the sap out of the plants and can rapidly destroy a cannabis crop. They leave behind a tell-tale smattering of white or yellow dots on the marijuana leaves. If you happen to see white hairs that look like spiderwebs in your cannabis, pluck them out and take a second look at your weed before you smoke it.

Cannabis bananas

Stressful growing conditions, including too-bright or inconsistent light, too much heat or extreme swings between hot and cold, poor genetics, and lack of nutrition can cause “bananas” to form on cannabis plants. These long yellow pods resemble actual bananas, and their presence is a sure sign that a batch of cannabis is likely to be weak and full of seeds.

Cannabis bananas are stamens, the same type of pollen-makers that normally grow inside the pollen sac on male cannabis plants. Stressed-out female plants will grow their own stamens that sit directly on the outside of the plant (instead of in a sac), in a last-ditch effort to produce more seeds. But these female stamens come out long and yellow (or green), either alone or in bunches. If pollen from these bananas gets to any of your other cannabis plants, they will begin to focus their efforts on making seeds instead of cannabinoids like THC.

How to test weed for potency

Buying tested, certified weed from reputable dispensaries can give you an accurate idea of how much THC you’re getting. However, if you have to buy it elsewhere, grow your own, or simply want to see for yourself, here’s the latest in cannabis-testing technology.

Using technology to test cannabinoid levels

If you are growing your own weed, making your own edibles or concentrates, or buying outside of a licensed dispensary, it’s difficult to know how strong your weed will be. There are a growing number of cannabis labs offering “cannabinoid tests” for nearly any type of cannabis product. If you’re producing (or want to be sure before using) any kind of cannabis edibles, oils, concentrates, topical products, or regular bud, this is an option, though there is a time-lag involved in sending in a sample and waiting for results, and the cost can add up. Investing in an at-home test kit can give you a clear look at the potency of some types of cannabis in just minutes.

tCheck 2 Testing Device and App

Whether you run a cannabis business or you simply want to know the potency of your latest stash, one of our favorite at-home testing devices is tCheck. It’s a small, user-friendly electronic testing device (similar in size to a smartphone) with an insertable tray for your cannabis samples. In only 60 seconds, you can assess the THC and CBD levels of infused olive oil, coconut oil, butter, and clear alcohol-based cannabis tinctures. More infusible oils will be added to tCheck’s testing capability in the future. If you want to test the THCa level of flower or concentrates, you’ll need to have the expanded tCheck Expansion Kit, which includes all the supplies needed to create a testable liquid sample. These tests only take 5-6 minutes.

Once you have your potency results, you can also use tCheck’s free companion smart phone app to track your marijuana crop and see which plants are gearing up to be your star performers. If you are testing infusions for cooking or baking, the app also features a calculator to show you exactly how much of your infused oil or tincture to use in any recipe to achieve your desired potency. You don’t even have to sacrifice your original sample – it’s still useable after testing. tCheck’s accuracy is +/-15% of the reading at full scale.

Don’t ever settle for bad weed again

Now you know what to look (and smell) for, you’ll be better able to identify high-grade weed (and steer clear of the bad stuff) no matter where you buy it.

Q: How to tell if weed is good?
A: Good quality weed will be green (never brown or moldy), coated with a sticky white crystalline resin, have a strong, pleasant smell, and be free of seeds, stems, and excess leaf material. Good weed will easily break apart, but won’t crumble to the touch.

Q: What does good weed look like?
A: Good weed will be green and dense (density does vary by strain). Weed with a thick, shiny coat of a milky white crystal resin known as trichomes will be the most potent.

Q: What does good weed smell like?
A: High-quality weed will have that unmistakably pungent smell that marijuana’s known for. It won’t smell damp, grassy, or weak.

Q: What does bad weed look like?
A: Bad weed may either be brown, crumbly, and dried-out or damp with possible signs of mold or mildew. Low-quality weed may also contain seeds and “shake” – excess stems and leafy pieces.

How cannabis is grown, handled, and stored can greatly affect its strength and quality. Here’s what to look for – and avoid.